Here’s What Freedom Means To Me As An Indian Woman and Women’s Economic Empowerment

In many parts of the world, women are unable to move freely. Freedom of movement is not only a human right―emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 13)―but is also an economic imperative. When countries impose legal restrictions on women’s ability to move freely, do not provide workplace flexibility for parents with children or fail to protect women from sexual harassment in public places, women’s economic empowerment is impaired. Social norms may also limit women’s ability to move freely and get a job or start a business.

On 2 February 2016, the Empower Women team and the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law team co-hosted a Google Hangout followed by a two week e-discussion focused on the regulatory and social constraints on women’s ability to move freely, and the importance of freedom of movement for women’s economic empowerment. Experts and discussant were Katrin Schulz (World Bank Group), Nisha Arekapudi (World Bank Group), Julie Babinard (World Bank Group), Hemant Ramachandra (PwC), Andrea Milan (UN Women), Ursual Wynhoven (UN Global Compact), and Jacqueline Gichinga (African Centre for Legal Excellence). The following is a summary of key highlights from this important discussion.

Discussion highlights

Even though the right to freedom of movement is set out in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women in many parts of the world find that their mobility is restricted – whether by legislation, by social or cultural norms, or by their communities’ toleration of threatening or even violent behaviour towards them. A woman’s mobility may be curtailed from childhood, and this disempowerment will follow her throughout her life. Shared social norms that girls belong at home will inhibit girls’ participation in education, damaging their potential for economic empowerment. If they do go out in public, the threat of social harassment and violence may reinforce their isolation. Ultimately, offered little or no protection by the law, many women will accept the domestic role assigned to them by tradition. While this can be, as one e-discussion contributor said, an honourable and fulfilling choice, the challenge comes when women are forced into it. The e-discussion highlighted three main issues that can have a profound effect on women’s mobility.

  • Legal and social barriers to women’s freedom of movement
  • Affordable, good quality childcare and flexible work arrangements
  • Attitudes towards women in public spaces

Such challenges add up to a formidable range of obstacles to women’s economic empowerment.

Legal and social barriers to women’s freedom of movement

Women can face legal challenges to their mobility that include restrictions on their right to leave the marital or family home; to travel abroad; and to apply for passports and other permits to travel. In a significant number of jurisdictions, it is harder for women than for men to pass on citizenship rights to their children or spouses, or for married women to apply for a passport or visa. Social challenges are more insidious and harder to quantify; some may even take the form of rules imposed by the authorities or communities even though they have no basis in law.

Legal restrictions: Some countries have laws that prohibit women from going out in public unless accompanied by a male member of their family, or that prohibit them from driving. Without support, it is impossible for them to do paid work or start a business. The captain of the Iranian women’s soccer team was recently stopped from playing with her team in the Asia Women’s World Cup when her husband exercised his legal right to deny her permission to travel to Malaysia with her teammates. In Kenya, as in many other countries, it is easier for men to take advantage of job opportunities abroad; women often have to ask their husband to sign key documents for them. Kenya’s amended constitution now allows dual citizenship; the previous constitution took citizenship away from Kenyan women who married non-nationals. It is essential, said contributors, that national legislation on immigration considers the welfare of women. When women are prohibited from passing their citizenship to their children, it can have serious financial implications. In Jordan, for example, education fees can be 12 times higher for non-citizens.

Social restrictions: The e-discussion highlighted the fact that restrictions, particularly social norms, can be framed as ‘protecting’ women. Stopping women from travelling without permission protects the health and welfare of their families; or it protects them from human traffickers making false promises of formal employment abroad. Yet rarely do parallel safeguards protect families from abandonment when men exercise their freedom to travel; and ‘protection’ can easily be translated into repressive control by male family members, unsupportive families or communities. It was only this month (February 2016) that India’s Supreme Court ruled that ‘Hindu women can now be the head of their family’, a right that had always been reserved for the eldest male member by tradition and by loopholes in the law. In Uzbekistan, women and men have an equal legal right to international travel. Yet, in practice, passport offices insist that single women under 35 need permission from their fathers to leave the country, this, they say, is to combat human trafficking from Uzbekistan to the Gulf States.

Social norms may limit the educational level women are expected to reach. One contributor suggested that early marriage was a major factor in the growing number of unemployed young women in Kenya; another drew attention to the practice of abducting young female students on their way to or from school to force them into marriage.

Some societal norms mean that women doing paid work are ostracised and stigmatised as sexually available or promiscuous. Inevitably this will deter other women from attempting to pursue their own economic empowerment. In the southern United States of America, said another contributor, it is still commonplace for girls to be raised with the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, and it is common in colleges for young women to be described as pursuing an ‘MRS/Mrs degree’ – not building a career, but aiming to find a partner, get married and become a stay-at-home mother. Finally, it is difficult for women to learn leadership skills if they cannot move freely in society. Positive discrimination can help change in this area, and one contributor drew attention to Kenyan legislation for obligatory inclusion of women candidates in leadership selection processes.

Affordable, good quality childcare and flexible working arrangements

In the United States, quality childcare can cost up to USD 40,000 a year. In Kenya, women who fail to breast-feed discreetly are abused, yet men who urinate in public are tolerated. In India, poor women suffer most from the lack of good quality affordable childcare while being arguably the workers who most need it. Yet, as a number of contributors pointed out, policies that help retain the skills and potential of women in the labour force make sense for both employers and national economies. Instead, the inflexible demands of formal work are often incompatible with women’s caring responsibilities and they are forced into informal, poorly paid work. The discussion identified a number of issues:

  • Poor support from employers for at-work childcare schemes and flexible working for parents
  • Poor support from governments for national childcare provision or subsidies
  • Poor support for employment retention policies, such as paid parental leave, that would persuade women not to leave the workforce when they have children
  • Patchy – and even a complete lack of – childcare provision, particularly in rural areas
  • Socio-economic factors, such as the lack of childcare benefits for blue-collar workers

Solutions suggested included:

  • Tax-linked and non-tax based allowances for childcare costs
  • Cash transfers for family members, such as grandparents, who help working women with childcare
  • Inclusion of men in flexible working time conversations, and in family-friendly policies
  • Legislation to normalise such policies across all sectors and for all sizes of business, including financial help for smaller businesses and their employees

Women sometimes try to find their own solutions to such obstacles; in Kenya, for instance, some lone mothers have combined forces to offer each other support and share childcare.

Attitudes towards women in public spaces

Women around the world face sexual harassment. In London, a 2011 poll showed 43% of women had been harassed in public places. In a similar French poll, 100% of respondents reported some experience of harassment. Sexual harassment and violence can also be used as a tool of social disapproval and intimidation.  Women being stripped of their clothes in public by people – usually men – who disapprove of their choice of dress have been widely reported in African countries.

Defining sexual harassment: Contributors agreed that a universally agreed definition was needed to counter common justifications for sexual harassment such as ‘it was just a compliment’ and ‘this is our culture’. It could be defined as unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on someone in a public place without their consent by a stranger; and directed at them because of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

Who takes responsibility? In many cultures where victim-blaming is common, women may be stigmatised by co-workers, communities and even their own families if they are sexually harassed or attacked while travelling to and from school, college and work or while in their classrooms and workplaces. If they challenge such behaviour, they may be victimised or even expelled or fired. In cases such as the 2012 rape and murder of a young Delhi student, widely reported around the world, women may even be blamed for their fate on the grounds that they should not have been out in public, or that they should not have resisted their attackers.

Confining and silencing women The discussion pinpointed many areas of everyday life where women are often subjected to unwanted sexual attention. Simply travelling on public transport can expose women to sexual harassment and violence. Others who must use public toilets because their homes have no facilities routinely run the risk of assault and rape. In some cultures, sexually abusive language is used to shame women into silence if they try to make their voice heard in public decision-making. Male co-workers who sexually harass women may turn to such abuse if their behaviour is challenged. Several contributors said that often there were no clear sanctions for such behaviour, and consistent enforcement of laws against sexual harassment and violence was often lacking – as, said one, in his home country of Togo.

The benefits of women’s mobility: Women’s mobility is known to be crucial to the economies of countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka which rely heavily on female employment migration and the money women migrants send home.

Similarly, tradeswomen in many Sub Saharan African economies cross borders with their wares. Women’s access to identification documents promotes their mobility and boosts their earning potentials. As one contributor put it, equality means business – it makes sense not just from a human rights perspective, but also from an economic and business perspective.

Legislation is shaped by socio-cultural norms, just as norms can be shaped by new laws. A number of contributors agreed this means that change in both areas must be promoted simultaneously. This demands both top-down action – international bodies encouraging national legislatures to promote change – and bottom-up initiatives that promote change at grassroots level and changes the mind-set of communities. Men must be included in the conversation and their support enlisted, so that the onus is not simply on women to protest and campaign for women’s empowerment.